Nayomi Munaweera was born in Sri Lanka, grew up in Nigeria and lives in USA. In 2013, her debut novel Island of a Thousand Mirrors won the Commonwealth Book Prize, Asian region, and was long listed for the Man Asia Prize and the International DUBLIN Literary Award. In 2017, her second book, What Lies Between Us won the State Literary Award for Best English Novel, 2017. Along with renowned Sri Lankan writer Shyam Selvadurai, Nayomi has been a part of the Write to Reconcile Programme in Sri Lanka.
Sucharita Dutta-Asane: Nayomi, welcome to Kitaab. Congratulations on winning Sri Lanka’s State Award for your second book.
I’m intrigued by the titles of your books Island of a Thousand Mirrors and What Lies Between Us – the first visually evocative and the second ironic in its use of the word ‘Lies’. What led to the choice of these titles?
Nayomi Munaweera: I actually do not title my own books. It’s very difficult after you’ve worked on a book for multiple years, eight for the first, four for the second to find a phrase that encapsulates all the thought and complication that you have attempted to explore. Both the titles came after about 3 months of consultation with my publisher, my editor, my agent, my family. The first title came out of an 80 title list. It was a really difficult process to find it. The second was similarly difficult – I think we came up with 60 and before I picked this one. So I would rather write a 300 page book than title it. I leave that to other people.
Sucharita: What was it like to write Island from either side of the socio-political divide while living in a country removed from the scene of this trauma and then to rely on and deal with ‘memory’ as inherent to this story?
I had a lot of fear about whether I was the person to tell this story. Whether it was mine to tell since I had not lived in Sri Lanka since I was three years old and only visited the country every year. I was very aware of my out-sider-ness. I think all writers deal with this. But if you stop there you’ve let fear swallow up your writing. A great deal of writing is about being recklessly, stupidly adamant that you will do the thing. It might not be good but you have to try. It was that sort of foolhardiness that got me through eight years of writing that book and the subsequent three years it took to find a first publisher.
Sucharita: What Lies Between Us leaves behind the politics and history of a country and turns inward to a space that is intensely fissured, to memory that is slippery. For you as the writer, living in the mind of a single character through the traumatic events she internalises, did her emotions, fears and responses come naturally to you, the organic process, or did it involve a lot of research?